It’s quite a popular phrase, said by quite a popular man; “You must be the change you wish to see in the world” is perhaps the most common utterance of the late civil rights hero, Mahatma Gandhi. So common, that it’s borderline hackneyed and stale. The phrase has become a platitude devoid of its power to spark significant thought, but in light of its vapid, ubiquitous use, literature in social psychology has redeemed its impetus as an inculcation of inspiration.
Let’s break down the phrase. “You must be the change you wish to see in the world” connotes that one wishes to change the behavior of others, an ambitious task I share as well. Now the common parlance is that people act based on their attitudes. They don’t do drugs because their attitude to such a behavior is one of moral disdain; doing such an act would be a travesty to one’s mental faculties! On the other hand one might engage the use of such substances because their attitude is that “it’s no big deal”. The hope is that if you give kids, for example, enough reasons to not do drugs – they’ll drop out of school, get in trouble with the law, etc – that if you change their attitudes, they will ACT accordingly. I won’t debate the merits of either side, at least not here, but I will tell you that the idea that attitudes change behavior is incorrect!
Don’t believe me? Think about all the times you knew better, but did the wrong thing. Think about the popular ideas everyone in society knows, for example, that material things won’t make you happy. Yet watch the videos of people trampling each other over a pair of Jordan basketball shoes. The truth is that behavior changes attitude. The cognitive dissonance of our minds has it such that we always want to see ourselves in the light because, nearly a universal phenomenon, people need to think of themselves as good people, and thus subjectively alter our attitudes as to mirror our preceding behaviors as positive.
So then, how do you change behavior? Perception. You can give two people the same set of facts about a person, say, a criminal. They both know he committed burglary, and that he held a cashier at gunpoint. One person sees the criminal as a monster, a menace to the contractual social order. However, the other person has empathy, he knows that this particular criminal just got laid off at his job, has been trying to feed his kids, and is trying to pay for his wife’s medical bills because she has cancer. Certainly, seen in this light, the first person would change their perception of the criminal, and perhaps have more empathy.
So then, how do you change perception? Let’s take another look at the phrase. “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Researchers at Yale carried out an experiment where they gave a biography of a successful mathematician, Nathan Jackson, to a class of students. However, in half of the biographies, they made sure that the birthday listed of the successful mathematician matched that of the student reading the bio. Then the researchers gave all the students a set of math problems, to which the students who had their birthday’s match that of the Jackson worked 65 percent longer than the students who didn’t share the sense of kinship. In other words, when people see what’s possible for someone they relate to, the perception that they have of themselves for their own possibilities changes!
Powerful stuff. Therefore if we wish to influence others behavior, we must alter their perceptions. To alter their perceptions, they must see things in a new light; they must see new possibilities whether they are grandiose or humble. When people truly perceive what they can achieve, it alters their behavior, which alters their attitudes, which reinforces their perception. In other words, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world”.
- Aman John